Patañjali says that we can meditate on anything that our heart desires. The important thing is not what we meditate on, but more that we meditate. And then gradually to meditate more and more on what corresponds to the innermost longing of our heart. The practice of meditation… gradually works its magic in stilling the mind.
– Ravi Ravindra, The Wisdom of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras
Reading the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is a great reminder of the true meaning of Yoga for me. As a Yoga teacher, I constantly remind my students that Yoga is more than just the physical postures (āsana) that we are so familiar with here in the West. In it’s truest form, it’s about meditation. Yoga means Union and the purpose is to teach the practitioner of Yoga, called the Yogi, how to achieve Union with the Supreme Absolute or God.
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali show us the path and final destination of a dedicated Yogi.
In brief the eight limbs, or steps to Yoga, are as follows:
- Yama : Universal morality
- Niyama : Personal observances
- Asanas : Body postures
- Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
- Pratyahara : Control of the senses
- Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi : Union with the Divine
Patañjali divided his Yoga Sutras into four chapters or books (pada), containing in all 196 aphorisms, as follows:
- Samadhi Pada (51 sutras). Samadhi refers to a blissful state where the yogi is absorbed into the One. This section describes the most advanced stages of the practice of Samadhi.
- Sadhana Pada (55 sutras). Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for “practice” or “discipline”. This section gives a more practical guide to Samadhi. The first 5 limbs of Yoga are discussed here.
- Vibhuti Pada (56 sutras). Vibhuti is the Sanskrit word for “power” or “manifestation”. This section describes the powers and accomplishments that could come to a faithful practitioner. The final 3 limbs of Yoga are discussed here.
- Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras). Kaivalya here means “liberation.” This section discusses Yoga from a more cosmic, philosophical viewpoint.
Origins of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali
Various authorities attribute the compilation of the sutras to Patañjali. It is considered that Patañjali was not the first to write about Yoga – but was the first to compile and systematize the ideas and practices. His text became the authority on the subject of Yoga and now he is known as the “father of Yoga.”
No one knows when Patañjali lived, but estimates of the date of the Sutras range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D.
Book One – Samadhi Pada
atha – now; yoga – of yoga; ānuśāsanam – exposition, instruction
Now the exposition of yoga is being made.
The word “atha” indicates a commitment on the part of the student, and on the part of the teacher. It makes it clear that the study of yoga is going to start NOW.
What Patañjali is about to explain is not merely an intellectual understanding of philosophy. He is going to show us direct instruction on how to practice yoga. Without practice, nothing can be achieved.
yogaḥ = yoga; citta = of the mind-stuff; vṛtti = modifications; nirodhaḥ = restraint
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga.
This sutra explains the entire goal of Yoga. So if understood correctly, no other sutras are required.
The entire world is your own projection. As the mind, so the man; bondage or liberation are in your own mind. If we can control our mental modifications whether internal (mind) or external (senses), we will no longer be bound by the world.
tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam
tadā = then; draṣṭuḥ = the Seer (Self); svarūpe = in His own nature; avasthānam = abides
Then the Seer [Self] abides in his own nature.
You are that true Seer, whose reality is usually clouded by the fluctuations of the mind. You are not the body nor the mind. You are the Knower or Seer. You always see your mind and body acting in front of you. You know that the mind creates thoughts; it distinguishes and desires. The Seer knows that but is not involved in it. You can compare the mind to a mirror which usually provides an imperfect reflection when the Seer looks in it, and which can provide a true reflection only when the mind is still. This is the state we should ideally be in.
vṛtti = mental activity, mental modifications; sārūpyam = identification; itaratra = otherwise, elsewhere, at other times
At other times [the Self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications.
You seem to have lost your identity and have identified with your thoughts and body. If you eliminate all the things of the mind and body with which we identify ourselves, then we will realize that this pure “I” is no different from any other pure “I”. The form and name are just different versions of the same energy. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” becomes possible when you see there’s no difference between you and your neighbour.
A busy mind can rarely follow a direction. If it ever does, comprehension of the object will be faulty.
vrittayaḥ pañcatayaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ
vrittayaḥ = mental activities, modifications; pañcatayaḥ = of five kinds; kliṣṭāḥ = producing suffering, painful; akliṣṭāḥ= not producing suffering, not painful
There are five kinds of mental modifications which are either painful or painless.
The vṛtti are not in themselves bad – they’re part of life – so that’s why their effects can be either positive or negative. You don’t always see straight away whether these activities are beneficial or create problems. All five of these activities should be seen as interlinked parts of a single matrix, that each can at times be either beneficial or harmful, and that their effects can be either direct/immediate or indirect/occurring later.
Mental activities produce suffering when they separate us from the yoga state; these are selfish thoughts. They reduce suffering when they draw us nearer to that state; these are self-less thoughts.
How are we to know whether our thoughts are selfless or not? We have to watch carefully the moment a thought-form arises in the mind. We become analysts. This itself is Yoga practice – watching our own thoughts and analyzing them.
The painless thoughts are those that are actually neutral in character – e.g. noticing the existence of a tree while walking is a mere sense perception. It’s the vṛtti that arouse any kind of emotion that are painful. In our ignorance we see pleasure in experiences which are a potential source of pain.
pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smṛtayaḥ
pramāṇa = right knowledge, understanding, correct mental grasp; viparyaya = misconception, error, wrong knowledge;vikalpa = verbal delusions, imagination, ideation; nidrā = deep (dreamless) sleep; smṛtayaḥ = memory
They are right knowledge, misconception, conceptualization, sleep, and memory.
Each of these will be explained in the following sutras.
pratyaka = sensory perception; anumāna = inference, deduction; āgamāḥ = testimony worthy of faith, revelation;pramāṇāni = correct mental grasp
The sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference and scriptural testimony.
When you see flames, you know there is a fire; when you see smoke, you deduce there is a fire.
The mind can register an object directly through the senses. When the available information is inadequate or incomplete for sensual perception, other faculties, such as logic and memory, may enable a more complete comprehension of the object to be inferred. When no direct comprehension is possible, reference to reliable authorities, such as holy scriptures or a trusted individual, can enable comprehension indirectly. In such a way do we understand places, people or concepts outside our direct experiences. In a state of Yoga comprehension is different from comprehension at other times. It is closer to the true nature of the object.
viparyayaḥ = error, mistake, misconception, erroneous imprssion; mithyā = incorrect, false; jñānam = knowledge, learning; atadrūpa = on a form different from what it really is, not on that form; pratiṣṭham = based, established, possessing
Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.
You see a rope and think it’s a snake. Misconception can create problems – it leads to prejudices and unsound responses to situations. But it can have positive outcomes – if you realize your error it can lead to deeper reflection and thus to a more correct understanding. This is considered to be the most frequent activity of the mind.
śabdajñānānupātī vastuśūnyo vikalpaḥ
śabda = word, speech, sound; jñāna = cognizance, knowledge; anupātī = following upon, formed of; vastu = reality, of an object, of matter; śūnyaḥ = without any, empty, unoccupied; vikalpaḥ = fancy, verbal delusion
An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.
In the previous sutra there is at least one object which has caused the delusion.
In this sutra there is no object, only words, but you still form an opinion based on the words. In oral traditions, ideas are transmitted in this way – without direct perception.
It can be both positive and negative. It can create new ideas, but it can also separate us from reality.
abhāva = nothingness, absence; pratyaya = cognition, content of mind; alambana = support; [tamas = inertia] ; vṛttiḥ= modification of mind; nidrā = sleep
That mental modification supported by cognition of nothingness is sleep.
This state is similar to samadhi, but sleep is a tamasic state, whereas samadhi is sattvic. In the state of sleep, mental activity doesn’t stop; but the brain is disengaged from the mind and thus doesn’t record the activities of the mind. When the person wakes up, the brain and the mind re-engage. In sleep the mental activity is transferred to a subtler vehicle and goes on as before. Only the brain has been put out of gear.
anubhūta = experienced; viṣaya = objects; asaṃpramoṣaḥ = not forgotten; smṛtiḥ = memory
When a mental modification of an object previously experienced and not forgotten comes back to consciousness, that is memory.
Our memory is closely linked with emotion and it is very subjective. Memory is knowledge born out of samskāra. Once a memory has been laid down, it can surface at any time. A memory can be of something real or something imagined; the latter is what happens in dreams. In these memories, attachment follows pleasurable memories, aversion follows painful memories. All these fluctuations must be eliminated.
abhyāsa = by practice; vairāgyābhyām = by non-attachment; tat = they; nirodhaḥ = restrained
These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.
tatra sthitau yatno ‘bhyāsaḥ
tatra = of these (two); sthitau = for being firmly estabished or fixed; steadiness; yatnaḥ = effort; endeavour; abhyāsa= practice
Of these two, effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.
We must have continuous practice and constant vigilance. You become eternally watchful, scrutinizing every thought, every word, and every action.
The continuity of the mind devoid of all fluctuations is called Praśānta-vāhitā. That is the highest state of tranquillity of the mind; the other forms of calmness are only secondary. As the practice improves, the tranquillity also increases. With one’s aim fixed on Praśānta-vāhitā. The effort to hold on to whatever placidity has been attained by one is called practice. The greater the energy and enthusiasm with which the effort is made, the sooner will the practice be established.
sa tu dīrghakālanairantaryasatkārādarāsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ
saḥ = this, that, the latter; tu = but, however, and, indeed; dīrgha = long; kāla = time, duration; nairantarya = without interruption; satkāra = with seriousness, earnestness; ādara [word not in S or T] = with respect; āsevitaḥ = nourished by, well attended to, practised; dṛḍha = firm; bhūmiḥ = ground.
Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.
Practice must be constant, daily, and, if possible, every moment. Practice which is nor broken by its opposite habit of restlessness, is constant practice.
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.